TAMPA — Sarah Taylor was at the Florida State Fair on Feb. 7, which was a "student day." While she was there, she got into an argument with some teenagers.
As the sun went down and teens started running wild, she got separated from her friends. She was then surrounded by a group of people who started attacking her.
"I got hit with an umbrella, a baton, some feet, some fists," Taylor said. "I don't know what the rest was."
Taylor, a senior at Middleton High School, suffered damage to her nose that might require surgery, and she said she still has blurry vision. She and her mother joined about 150 other people Thursday night at an NAACP meeting at Ambassadors of Christ Inc. Temple of Prayer to discuss ways to curb annual outbursts of mayhem on Hillsborough County's student day at the fair.
Taylor's mother, Sonnita Tubbins, said authorities need to exercise better security at next year's fair — or get rid of student day, in which kids are given free tickets and the day off from school. "She never would have went to that fair if she hadn't had that free ticket," Tubbins said.
Thursday's get-together was one of several planned discussions about the first Friday of this year's fair, in which, deputies said, hundreds of teenagers fought, ran wild and caused chaos. This meeting, the second, emphasized hearing from children and teens.
They were asked to speak at the start of the meeting and to answer two questions: What were the problems at this year's fair, and what did they think was the solution?
Latasha Washington, a student at Jefferson High School, said she was at this year's fair and was scared when fights started to break out near her. "I had to grab my nephew and start running as fast as I could," she said.
Wildens Cajuste, a senior at Steinbrenner High School, said the answer could be more police officers or more family present at the fair. But he stopped short of saying that student day should be canceled.
"Student day at the fair has been going on before I was even born. … It's been going on since my brothers and big sisters, they're all at college now," Cajuste said. "It's been going on forever."
Later, adults weighed in as well. Some said parents need to be more aware of their children's lives. Others said there needed to be a larger police presence. One suggestion was to create a "safe house" where children could call their parents if other teenagers started acting up.
Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, who spoke at the meeting, said policies can be discussed, but his goal is to not have to eject some teenagers and arrest others. "I don't want to arrest kids because when we arrest them, we create a record which, even as a minor thing, it causes you a world of problems," he said.
Florida State Fair Authority executive director Charles Pesano said the fair's goal is to be a family-friendly event. Its planners will continue to work with the Sheriff's Office and the Hillsborough County School Board on strategies to avoid chaos, he said.
"It hurts us inside, and I say that truthfully, when things don't go well," Pesano said.